One day not long ago, I left work at 5:15 and headed west on Fulton to catch the uptown 4/5 at Broadway. The sidewalk was packed thick with commuters. I felt weary and aggravated by the slow pace of the crowd. “Come on, people,” I muttered under my breath, “let’s move.” Just as I said this, I noticed something not-right: a man, two or three people ahead of me, crumpling. A building caught his fall. I came to his side. He was pale; his face contorted; he clutched his arm. He was dressed in a suit, as if he had just left his office on Wall Street. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Are you sick? Do you need help?” I wondered if he was having a seizure. I felt for my cell phone in my pocket, ready to make a call.
He didn’t answer. He was Asian and, for a moment, I wondered if he didn’t speak English. I repeated myself: “Are you in pain? Do you need help?”
“No, I’m okay,” he said, and then began weeping. I looked around, not sure what to do. Passersby were watching. The young man stood and began walking slowly, still weeping all the while. I stayed by his side.
“You sure you’re okay?” I asked. “If I can do anything to help—”
He nodded, so, though reluctant, I went on my way, taking the steps down to the subway station. When I rounded the corner, I saw he was behind me. Our eyes met. I slowed my pace so he wouldn’t lose track of me in the crowd. He followed, through the turnstile and onto the platform. He looked so distraught, his face a rictus of pain. I had a bad feeling, I just did, frightened that he might do something to harm himself. He came and stood next to me; he cried quietly but didn't speak.
Fortunately, a train arrived immediately, and I ushered him onto the car. Commuters rushed through, pushing their way in, pushing hard; you can't believe how crowded a subway car can be at rush hour.
He grabbed hold of a pole with both hands, so tightly his knuckles went white. He began crying again. The subway car was packed so tightly that I was pressed right against him. I told him my name and asked his. "Kenneth," he mumbled, saying it with derision.
“What’s going on, Kenneth?” I whispered.
He took a deep breath. “It’s all gone wrong!” he spit out. “My entire life.”
Had he lost his job? Lost a fortune? Gotten his heart broken? I didn’t ask. I put a light hand on his shoulder and let the train’s hum answer him.
We rode in silence for awhile.
He looked up at one point. “You’re a good person,” he said brusquely. He tried to say it nicely, I could tell, but somehow it didn’t come out that way; it sounded like a mean accusation. It was actually sort of funny. I couldn’t help but smile.
"Listen," I told him, "I have had days like the one you are having." I told him how sometimes I used to go out to the pier at Christopher Street when it was empty, just to have a cry. "It's hard."
The car was packed tight yet completely quiet but for the sound of a young man in a nice suit and tie, crying. I looked around and saw alert, concerned faces—people not wanting to intrude but at the same time listening.
An Indian woman seated nearby caught my eye. She mouthed to me: Is he okay? Does he want to sit down? I asked Kenneth, but, no, he wanted to stay put. The Indian woman squeezed through and joined us. There we were, three strangers steadying ourselves on the same subway pole. Pressing up against us from all sides, it seemed, were hundreds and hundreds of subway riders, in this car, and in the next, and in the next, in both directions, like a long retaining wall that keeps a whole mountainside from sliding down.
She asked Kenneth if he had a place to go, people to be with tonight. He was going home, he answered. He had to make a transfer at Grand Central to get to Yonkers. She offered to go with him. He refused her help--no, no, he said--but she insisted she would be happy to go.
I thanked her. “I have to get off at the next step. You’ll make sure he gets home safe?”
“Absolutely.” She introduced herself to him, her voice like a song.
The subway stopped at 14th Street/Union Square. I wished Kenneth well and thanked the woman again and stepped off.
"Next stop, Grand Central," said the recorded voice on the loudspeaker. The train departed.
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International AIDS Vaccine Initiative